I probably won’t blog every week about my thoughts about Doctor Who — indeed, I probably won’t watch it every week, as I don’t have a TV — I was visiting friends to watch it this week, as the debut of a new Doctor, and a female Doctor at that, and a *Northern* female Doctor at that, is something we were all keen to see. But I did see it this week, and thought I’d get my initial thoughts down, before seeing what the more general reaction has been.
Overall, I’d say this is probably the best debut of a new Doctor since… well, “Rose” seemed pretty good at the time, but in retrospect I was probably giving it far more benefit of doubt than I should have, and since I’ve not rewatched it in thirteen years, I may well not think of it as highly if I saw it now, especially as I’m more aware of all Davies’ writing flaws.
Other than that, it’s the best debut of a new Doctor since “Castrovalva”.
Before people take that as overly high praise, remember I am not a fan of the post-2005 series in general, though I’ve enjoyed several individual episodes, that the McGann TV movie has some fairly basic structural problems, and that McCoy and Colin Baker both debuted with what it’s safe to say are generally considered their weakest stories. So I’m not holding this episode to a ridiculously high standard.
But it did easily clear the basic bar set for it, and it did some stuff that I wasn’t expecting (as well as some stuff that I was).
First, the one actual criticism I’d make is the YouTube framing sequence, where first we think that Ryan is talking about the Doctor but later it turns out that he was actually talking about his grandmother. This is hack and cliched, and was the one moment in the entire episode that felt entirely off to me.
But on the other hand there was another moment involving Ryan that gave me great hope that this series will be much better than it has been, and which almost made me cheer.
Ryan, for those who don’t watch the show or don’t remember details, is dyspraxic, as am I. And at nineteen years old he can’t ride a bike — I still can’t, at forty, and nor can I drive a car. At the start of the story, his grandmother and step-grandfather are patiently trying to teach him to ride, and he keeps falling off, and eventually gets frustrated and throws his bike off the top of a hill. This is entirely accurate and about what would have happened to me if I hadn’t given up on trying to ride a bike long before I turned nineteen.
But then, his grandmother dies, and he remembers her patience in trying to teach him this skill, and he’s determined to teach himself, so he goes back, and finds his bike, and still falls off. And tries again. And falls off. And tries again. And falls off. And that’s it.
We don’t see him suddenly, magically, get better through sheer force of will. We don’t see him manage to “overcome” his disability. He’s still disabled. He will remain disabled.
And this is impprtant for multiple reasons:
Firstly, disability representation matters, and dyspraxia is one of those disabilities that those who don’t have it don’t understand at all, and that even many dyspraxic people (at least when I was growing up) were unaware of — you don’t realise that no-one else has the same difficulties you do in doing seemingly simple tasks, you just think you’re rubbish (it’s like autism in that respect — and dyspraxia plus undiagnosed autism is a real bastard of a combination for self-esteem, in case you were wondering). It’s also great that Ryan is a *black* dyspraxic teenager — normally, to the extent that the whole cluster of disabilities like that (autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia all seem to cluster — it’s comparatively likely that if you have one you’ll have a bunch of them) is represented at all, it’s represented by… well, someone like me. A white boy or man.
Secondly, people “overcoming” their disability is a dangerous, ableist, trope. It puts pressure on disabled people and says that if you’re still actually disabled it’s your own fault for not trying enough. It might, eventually, be possible for a dyspraxic person to learn to ride a bike, a bit. But it’s not something that can be done with just a little bit of extra trying — it might take literally years of practice, every day, the same amount of practice it might take someone else to become a concert pianist. Saying otherwise is obscenely harmful, and too many TV series do that kind of thing for a feelgood ending.
And thirdly, and in some ways least important but in other ways most, what I just said — most TV series would go for the cheap emotional boost of having the character succeed. It’s a cliche, and it’s dull. And this episode didn’t go for the cliche, and instead went for a more complex, more interesting, option.
There’s a lot more I liked about the episode as well — the little nod to Tomb of the Cybermen showing that this is still the same character as the second Doctor, the fact that the music is no longer by Murray Gold, the fact that it’s colour-graded to look like naturalistic TV drama rather than the unreal palettes of most of the post-2005 series, the fact that the characters were grounded in real working-class jobs (my dad has worked as both a nurse and a bus driver, so this feels grounded to me in a way that other series haven’t).
Whitaker was good — I could go into detail about her performance, but right now I think that any negatives I said would be taken as me being on the “the Doctor can’t be a girl, ewww!” side of things, and I don’t want to give an unbalanced assessment, so I’ll just leave that for now, except to say that I have no trouble believing her as the Doctor, which has not been the case with some other previous actors in the role.
But for me, other than the dyspraxic character and the realism of much of it (other than them getting the trains wrong, of course), the thing that struck me the most was that the script was *competent*. It’s not a great script (I wouldn’t expect greatness from Chibnall), but it was functional in a way that, frankly, most of the scripts by previous showrunners haven’t been — Davies because he didn’t care enough about plot mechanics to have plots actually make sense, and Moffat because he would try to be cleverer than he was.
It felt, actually, very Terrance Dicks — it had a baseline competence to it on the crafting level that much of the post-2005 series hasn’t had. The one moment of subverting the cliche and the one moment of going for the obvious cliche I talked about above sort of cancel each other out in that respect, and the rest of the episode went by, almost uniquely, without me noticing any horrendous failures of craft (the way the Doctor defeated the monster at the end wasn’t quite well enough set up, but it was papered over better than similar events in Davies scripts).
In everything other than the areas of representation — of disability, gender, and ethnicity — this was a reassuringly traditional, competent, episode. It’s very wisely chosen to play everything safe except for the new stuff, but that’s what makes the most sense for something that has to introduce so many new parts. I don’t think it’ll go down as a classic episode, but it was an enjoyable episode, one I can imagine rewatching with pleasure, and one I can easily see as the opening to a classic series.
I liked it.
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